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Yasukuni Shrine, Yushukan Museum, Tokyo, japanese war memorial, japanese war history

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This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Yakusuni Shrine and Yushukan Museum

They say it’s the victors who get to write history. Obviously nobody told the Japanese.

While most of the world sees the Imperial Japanese as merciless invaders during the period of World War II, the country’s largest war museum mixes the red and white of the national flag to use rose-coloured pigments to paint a very different picture. Japan, if you are to believe the rhetoric, were trying to be liberators of Asia and were forced into the global conflict by a manipulative West who intentionally starved the country of resources. It’s no wonder so much controversy surrounds this site.

Yasukuni Shrine, Yushukan Museum, Tokyo, japanese war memorial, japanese war history

The Yushukan War Museum is part of the divisive Yakusuni Shrine in central Tokyo. The shrine itself honours more than 2 million Japanese who lost their lives in the service of Japan. A war memorial should not aim to be controversial but the inclusion on the honour roll of people many consider to be war criminals has long been a point of contention and is raised again every time a politician visits the shrine. Those who maintain the list of the dead argue that it is not for them to judge the actions of individuals but merely to record the fact they died while fighting for Japan. Those with a strong sense of justice see it otherwise.

Yasukuni Shrine, Yushukan Museum, Tokyo, japanese war memorial, japanese war history

But the Yushukan Museum takes things a step further. It is presented as a factual account of Japan’s war history but anyone with a basic knowledge of World War II would be able to see the revisionism within this military narrative. I thought it might be interesting to break it down and do a quick analysis of the techniques that are used.

Language

Sometimes it’s simply the wording. For example, the Japanese never ‘surrender’, they always ‘acquiesce’. They don’t ‘sign a truce’, they ‘prevent hostilities from escalating’. Language can be a very powerful thing in war – sometimes as powerful as the weapons on the battlefield – and the museum knows how important this is in reshaping the story. Words come with their own connotations and it’s important to harness them.

Yasukuni Shrine, Yushukan Museum, Tokyo, japanese war memorial, japanese war history

Support

When the aim is to convince visitors to the museum that what they’re reading is accurate, it’s important to have some independent sources to back up the story. That might explain the display about one particular campaign that describes it like this: “Journalists representing the world’s leading news agencies who travelled with the Japanese witnessed their bravery and tactical brilliance and praised them in detailed reports.”

It reminds me of some of the things I read and was told during my trip into North Korea.

Yasukuni Shrine, Yushukan Museum, Tokyo, japanese war memorial, japanese war history

Reluctance

The whole narrative at the Yushukan Museum is centred on the idea that the Japanese were not aggressors and their actions were either necessary or for the good of Asia. Welcome to the exhibition entitled: “Japan’s quest for avoiding a war”.

The entire room is dedicated to explaining in great detail (down to each individual date) how Japan was extremely reluctant to get involved in World War II and offered many compromises to avoid it. According to this version of events, the US and the allies forced them into it by cutting off supply lines and depriving Japan of resources that were needed to feed the people and keep the economy going. The allies also manipulated Japan, apparently, into firing the first shot so they would look like the antagonists.

Yasukuni Shrine, Yushukan Museum, Tokyo, japanese war memorial, japanese war history

Focus

The museum is relatively large with 19 exhibition rooms spread over two levels. But there still isn’t a lot of space to tell the entire story of Japanese military history and also have a particular focus on the Second World War. Decisions have to be made about what to focus on – what to leave in and leave out.

It’s with this in mind, that there is merely half a sentence referring to that ‘little incident’ that happened at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. US President Franklin D Roosevelt called it “a day which will live in infamy”, but the Japanese just lumped it into the same paragraph as their campaigns in Singapore, Malay and Burma. It gets one more reference in the museum on a small display which describes it as a successful mission.

Yasukuni Shrine, Yushukan Museum, Tokyo, japanese war memorial, japanese war history

Humanity

There are certain things the museum can’t deny – and one of them is that Japan did not win World War II. So, as the ‘history lesson’ turns to this part of the chronology, the stories become more human. They start to look at the personal bravery of people like the kamikaze suicide bombers and the horrors of the soldiers on the battlegrounds across Asia.

One large display emotionally talks about the “unspeakable human miseries” of Japanese soldiers withdrawing from Burma. It, of course, does not mention the tens of thousands of allied prisoners of war who died under Japanese control while building the railway from Thailand to Burma to get the soldiers and supplies there in the first place.

In some ways, you can’t begrudge a country for prioritising patriotism. War memorials should be places where the dead are respected and it’s probably appropriate that the small details of what they had to do on the battlefield stay there. That is not the same as a complete whitewashing of history, though.

Yasukuni Shrine, Yushukan Museum, Tokyo, japanese war memorial, japanese war history

You get the sense that there’s an element of resentment in all of this. Japan became a global pariah after the Second World War. It was neutered by the international community, which turned on it and effectively banned it from having a functioning military. Here, in a building next to a shrine in the centre of the capital, Japan gets its release and its chance to say everything it ever wanted about those days. The sun is always rising on Japan… if it says so.

What do you think? You can leave a message in the comment section below.

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19 Comments
  • Geoff | Apr 26, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    A very useful comparison is German – they were left in a similar ‘neutered’ position after the war, and you rarely if ever seen any historical revisionism there. They (and their museums) take full responsibility for their actions.
    I’m intrigued to know why two nations took such different paths post war.
    Geoff recently posted..Olympic Park from the airMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:14 am

      It’s a good question and I’m not exactly sure what the answer is. My guess would be that it has something to do with how the actions during those years were intertwined with the national psyche. In Germany, although Hitler obviously had a lot of support, it was very much about a charismatic leader convincing the people that his way was best. In Japan it wasn’t about the leader as much as the people and the country. It’s much easier in hindsight to just blame it on a crazy dictator than admit your entire country is a nation of aggressors.

      • pouncingant | Dec 31, 2013 at 12:04 pm

        “It’s much easier in hindsight to just blame it on a crazy dictator than admit your entire country is a nation of aggressors.”
        So the entire country of Japan was aggressors? Your wording there makes it sound like military aggression is integral to the Japanese psyche, which is, of course, rubbish.
        There were voices against the war, but they were repressed quite harshly. Nationalism was (as is almost always the case when nationalism appears on that scale) pushed by the government, which was becoming increasingly inseparable from a powerful military.
        A lot of evil was commited during WW2, but people are still people the world over. It takes considerable hierarchy to create mass atrocities; something which was realised amongst a great many nations, axis and allied alike.
        Anyway, I’ve overstated my point, and will take this opportunity to verbosely exit (^_^;).

  • Josh | Apr 27, 2013 at 4:42 am

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I love this blog! Keep up the good work.

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:17 am

      Thanks for stopping by, Josh. Let me know if you’ve ever got any more thoughts on any of the posts!

  • Sherry | Apr 27, 2013 at 6:52 am

    Interesting place, for sure. Sadly history is taught all over the world from a biased perspective. We can never know if in part this was actually Japan’s intention during WWII. But it would be hard pressed for me to believe it. As it would be for most people in the world. I think the great thing about history is that we can actually translate it to what we feel is correct.

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:20 am

      You’re right, I think everyone deserves to be able to have their say. I have always learned a very Western-based version of history and although I found some of the things in this museum weird, what’s not to say that’s because I’m looking at it from a biased version of my own?
      In this case, though, it is quite tricky because the views of the museum are not universally-held by all of Japan. In fact, politicians often have to distance themselves from this version of history so as not to offend other countries. But it doesn’t mean people don’t believe it…

  • Elliot Shepherd | Apr 27, 2013 at 9:40 am

    That’s funny, I read something today that mentioned Japan’s entry in WW2…
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/05/what-if-we-never-run-out-of-oil/309294/

    “Not that Tokyo didn’t try: it bombed Pearl Harbor mainly to prevent the U.S. from blocking its attempted conquest of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.”

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:21 am

      How funny – it’s like I am in your mind and writing things relevant to what you’re doing. Although that is pretty creepy… let’s move on.
      Thanks for the article link – looks really interesting!

  • Jennifer | Apr 30, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    I suppose there are two sides to every story. I am American so of course know the history from an American perspective. It might be intersting to visit to learn the Japanese perspective.
    Jennifer recently posted..A Garden of Stories at Tohono Chul ParkMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 2:03 am

      It’s interesting to hear both sides of the story because the truth probably lies somewhere between the two. I feel like it probably lies much closer to the Western side, though.

      • YJ | Dec 13, 2013 at 3:39 am

        Hello Michael,

        I went to the yushukan museum today and it told a complete different take on history I learned growing up in the States and S. Korea. It was difficult to read from one place to another how all the wars were initiated by everyone else but Japan. If anything, I concur with you that this museum provided a good lesson on how powerful words could be. Thank you for your thoughtful post!

  • Chris Kelly | May 8, 2013 at 2:41 am

    Very interesting post. Of course the Japanese DID display tactical brilliance in the first six months of the war and astonishing bravery and sacrifice throughout. They also demonstrated astonishing brutality in China (rape of Nanking) and throughout asia. See my “Bridge on the River Kwai” for example…http://americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.co.uk/
    Chris Kelly recently posted..RAF Museum, HendonMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 11, 2013 at 3:36 am

      Yep – always two sides to the story and always good and bad demonstrated on both those sides!
      Interesting blog too – you’ve got a great eye for historical detail.

  • Dominic Yusoff | Dec 26, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Be careful with this “two side to the story” stuff. If that were the case, then why don’t you listen to the Nazi’s side of WW2 or Al Qaeda’s side of the War on Terror. And im sorry, it is whitewashing when you claim that your war was for the liberation of Asia but mention nothing of the thousands of Asians that you murdered along the way.

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 19, 2014 at 11:17 pm

      Well, I think there are always two sides to the story – even if one is closer to the ‘truth’ (however we define that). You mention Al Qaeda and the ‘War on Terror’. That’s a good example of how there are definitely two sides but you only hear the one your governments want you to. Why did the terrorists attack in the first place? What did the US do to them to cause so much anger and hatred? That’s not a story you are ever told if you live in the West.
      I think in the case of this museum, the Japanese are telling a very biased account of the war, clearly. But that does not mean the Western version is impartial.

  • 1776 | Apr 6, 2014 at 9:44 am

    While your trying to convince us of Japan’s angle of the war, remind everyone of the viscious Bataan Death March while your at it! I’m glad they got 2 cities destroyed by atomic bombs. They deserved it!

    • PouncingAnt | Apr 6, 2014 at 11:58 am

      Well, their government deserved it, and a number of those responsible got away with it (if my understanding is correct), because the whole imperial family was protected by the USA’s Douglas MacArthur, and others were spared for cooperation. While that may be sickening, wishing death on civilians is also disgusting.

      Leading up to the war, Japan became increasingly militaristic and nationalistic. These changes appear to have mostly come from the top down, particularly in the case of conscription, which gave the opportunity to indoctrinate a significant proportion of the population. A bit like modern North Korea, but perhaps less insane.

    • Michael Turtle | Apr 23, 2014 at 10:58 pm

      Personally I don’t believe anyone ever ‘deserves’ atomic weapons. In fact, I think very few people deserve war at all. TIt’s bever black or white.
      Having said that, though, the Japanese definitely showed a lot more signs of aggression than are admitted to in this museum. That’s the point of my story. Some countries may try to rewrite history but learning from the truth is the most important… even if it means that those awful bombs are never dropped again.

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